Dark Night Of The Scarecrow (1981)
Directed by: Frank De Felitta
Starring: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Larry Drake, Jocelyn Brando, Tom Taylor
(out of 4)
Warning: Some spoilers ahead
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a CBS TV horror movie from 1981 that has garnered a bit of a cult following over the years, the reason being that it’s creepier, better acted, and better directed than your typical TV movie fare. Somewhat violent for television, it nevertheless must adhere to certain internal guidelines – like limited gore – which helps it, because director Frank De Felitta and writer J.D. Feigelson are forced to work around the limitations of budget and the censor board; in doing so they have managed to craft an effective yarn involving a vengeful spirit in a small-town setting, the twist being that the spirit isn’t the true monster. The real monster is a traditionally respected government worker; the ghost represents justice for the innocent who have been wronged. Or, God’s vengeance – you decide.
Bubba (Larry Drake) is simple, intellectually handicapped, and friends with 10 year old Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). In two scenes, the film establish’s Bubba’s innocence in contrast with Marylee’s risk-taking nature. She gives him a lei for a kiss, which makes him uncomfortable; later she trespasses in a neighbor’s yard while Bubba refuses to go in, afraid of getting into trouble. Bubba was the smart one – Marylee is attacked by a dog, but Bubba is unable to convince anyone that he wasn’t the culprit. This enrages local mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), who gathers up a posse made of Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons), Philby (Claude Earl Jones), and Harless (Lane Smith – who sorta looks like Clu Gulager), and tracks Bubba down in a wheatfield. They discover him hiding inside a scarecrow and gun him down, right before a walkie-talkie tells them it was all a mistake – Bubba didn’t do it, and Marylee is going to live.
After a funny TV-movie courtroom scene which has all the perps acquitted, Bubba’s distraught mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sis) delivers a dire warning: “there’s other justice in this world besides the law!” Mrs. Ritter’s words of wisdom prove truthful when somebody plants a scarecrow on Harless’ property right before he has an unfortunate accident with a brush cutter. After Philby gets spooked by his own scarecrow, Otis figures it’s either Mrs. Ritter, the local D.A., or perhaps little Marylee herself who is to blame. Things only get worse as Otis finds himself on a unescapable path to his own destruction.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow paints an idyllic, bucolic setting that hides a growing evil – find its suburban cousin in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet some 5 years later. Durning’s performance as the sinister Hazelrigg is spot-on; there’s real menace lurking behind his neighborly facade. The movie drops a bombshell in exposing him as a closet pedophile, delivered subtly but effectively in spoken dialogue. This knowledge gives an extra layer of discomfort in a scene at a Halloween dance where he corners Marylee (“I’m the mailman! Noone’s afraid of the mailman!“) The irony of Marylee dressed as an adult complete with makeup suggests how the corrupt Otis probably views her. After another member of the posse is chased into his own grain silo by an unseen figure and buried alive, Otis is driven over the edge in desperate attempts to constantly cover his tracks. The ending of the picture is poetic justice and tells us that men who live by Old Testament values must similary be judged by the same. Bubba himself – a simpleton – is a symbol of innocence and purity; his persecution by corrupt vigilantes turns him into a martyr (no accident that the scarecrow is tied to a cross). Marylee’s platonic love for Bubba becomes Otis’ undoing. Simple but effective, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is good TV horror and proves that no matter how creepy scarecrows are, it’s the humans you gotta watch out for.
- Bill Gordon